Conservationists, energy companies form unlikely alliance to save sage grouse
(CBS News) LOS ANGELES - A major effort is underway in the western U.S. to save the sage grouse, a bird that could soon be on the endangered species list due to increased development and a decrease in habitat. And it's not just environmentalists looking to help -- energy companies are too.
Western Wyoming is cowboy country -- and rancher Gary Zakotnik is cowboy to the core.
"It's just a part of our lives," Zakotnik said. "We're stewards of the land."
Zakotnik's ranch lands are also home to the greater sage grouse -- a large ground-dwelling bird with a declining population. Zakotnik wants to save them. He's trying to increase the grouse's habitat.
A century ago, an estimated 16 million grouse roamed the West. But today, with shrinking habitats, roughly 200,000 remain.
To protect them, the federal government is debating whether to list the bird as an endangered species -- a move that might ban ranching and drilling from lands where the bird lives.
But, "Sage grouse and a tremendous amount of the nation's natural gas reserves share the same ground," said Paul Ulrich of Encana Energy Corporation, the largest producer of natural gas in Wyoming. "A listing under the Endangered Species Act would devastate the oil and gas industry."
Economists say an endangered listing could cost billions in lost productivity across 11 western states.
State governments are so worried that they've formed unlikely alliances with energy companies and ranchers -- all hoping to save the species before the federal government steps in. That means protecting the sage brush. The birds eat the leaves and also the insects drawn to the plants.
Wyoming's sage-filled terrain is home to almost half of the country's remaining sage grouse. So the governor signed an executive order, limiting disturbance to sage brush in core habitats for the birds. Five other states are drawing up similar restrictions.
"Protecting the grouse, maintaining the habitat, is good for business," Ulrich said.
Ranchers like Zakotnik, agree.
"If we can manage the bird, we can solve our problems," he said.
The federal government expects to make a final decision on listing the bird by 2015. By then there are many hoping to prove that gas, grazing, and grouse can co-exist.
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